Perhaps it will not surprise you if we add composing music to the list of traditionally male-dominated fields. The women composers whom we know through history persevered against tremendous odds and discrimination, in order to actually compose and then have their music performed and known to the general public. In this month’s column, we learn about some women who were music prodigies; they demonstrated their aptitude when they were quite young. Let’s discover more about these accomplished women composers.
By age one, music prodigy Amy Marcy Cheney Beach had memorized forty songs. She was composing waltzes by age four. She learned the piano from her mother and had her first public recital when she was seven years old. At seventeen years old, she debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Chopin’s Concerto in F Minor. The first American woman to receive recognition for her composition of large-scale works, Beach’s Mass in E-flat was performed in 1892 by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. In that same year, the Symphony Society of New York premiered her concert aria, the first time that orchestra had played a composition by a woman. After her husband’s death, Beach achieved renown in Europe as both a performer and composer. Returning to the U.S. in 1914, Beach performed in the winters and composed in the summers. An advocate for women composers, she was a co-founder and served as the first president of the Society of American Women Composers.
Florence Beatrice Smith Price performed her first piano recital at age four. Her first composition was published when she was eleven. The valedictorian at her high school, Price studied at the New England Conservatory beginning in 1904 where she double majored in organ and piano performance. After her graduation, she returned to Arkansas where she taught and began to concentrate on composing. Segregation in Arkansas presented a myriad of problems for her and her family; they moved to Chicago in 1927. Here her career began to flourish with the publication by the G. Schirmer and McKinley publishing companies of her songs, piano music, and her instructional materials for piano. In 1932, her Symphony in E minor won first place in the Wanamaker Prize competition. Contralto Marian Anderson began regularly singing Price’s arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord. When the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor in 1933, Price became the first black female composer with a work played by a major orchestra. She continued to compose throughout the 1940s and early 1950s.
Modernist and folk music composer Ruth Seeger began playing the piano when she was six years old. After her high school graduation, Seeger pursued a career as a concert pianist, began teaching piano students and composed songs for her students beginning in 1918. While attending the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, starting in 1921, she turned her focus from performance to composition. In 1930, she became the first female composer to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship. She was refused a renewal of her fellowship and experienced the difficulty that other women had had in getting their music published. Her composition Three Songs represented the United States at the 1933 International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Amsterdam. After her return to the U.S., Seeger working closely with the Archive of American Folk at the Library of Congress and arranged and interpreted many American folk songs.
Cuban-born Tania León began studying piano at the age of four. After studying at conservatories in Cuba, she came to the U.S. and studied piano at New York University. A founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, León established its music school and orchestra and composed pieces for the dancers. A composer and conductor, León also served as advisor to arts organizations. The recipient of the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, she has served on the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College since 1985 and became Distinguished Professor in 2000. León is the recipient of many awards and honorary doctorates including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
The first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, Ellen Zwilich began her musical career as a violinist. The first woman to receive a Doctor of Music Arts in composition from Julliard, her Symposium for Orchestra was performed by the Julliard Symphony Orchestra in 1975 and brought her renown. Many of her compositions from this era were written for her violinist husband. After his death, she focused on community with performers and listeners. Her Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1) premiered in 1982 and won her the Pulitzer Prize. The first occupant of the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall (1995-1999), she was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 1999. Zwilich is currently a professor at Florida State University, her undergraduate alma mater.
The second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, Shulamit Ran began setting poetry to music when she was seven years old. After studying piano and composition in her native Israel, Ran came to the U.S. at age 14, to continue her composition studies. Her 1990 Symphony won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Her many other honors and recognitions include two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Ran was a professor of music composition at the University of Chicago from 1973 to 2015. From 1990 through 1997 she also served as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s second composer-in-residence.
Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives. These women composers, as well as many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.